Conceptions of the American Dream
Since its coinage in 1931, the concept of “the American Dream” has lured tens of millions of immigrants from all corners of the planet to the United States with promises of prosperity and happiness far beyond anything attainable in their native countries. If you were to ask each one what “American Dream” meant to them, the vast array of answers would be akin to the assortment of individual stories themselves. However, whether they dream of material affluence, career success, or just overall happiness and prosperity, every story is faced with similar challenges in an altogether unfamiliar land. Unfortunately, while chasing down their coveted Dream, many immigrants become tripped up by conflicting desires to both successfully assimilate themselves into an entirely foreign culture, and maintain the distinct set of cultural values and practices that defined their entire previous existence. Though obstacles are always expected, oftentimes both immigrants dreaming the Dream and Americans discussing the Dream completely disregard the possibility of failure.
But what happens when the Dreams do not come true? Arguably, Fae Myenne Ng’s novel Bone poses critical questions regarding the feasibility of attaining an “American Dream” as a Chinese American immigrant in the United States. Though the idea of the “American Dream” is typically seen as a glimmer of hope and happiness, is it really just a false pretense for disappointment? As a Chinese American immigrant, there are extreme obstacles in the way of obtaining the token coveted “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” Ng’s novel provides honest insight to the lives of an immigrant Chinese family in San Francisco’s Chinatown; an account devoid of the exhausted Chinese American stereotype that has become too familiar in literature. Instead, through the lives of a struggling Chinese American family, she exposes the challenges plaguing Chinese American immigrants. Bone rejects the common conception that the “Dream” is attainable by all, and suggests instead that Leon Leong, the father figure in the novel, fails to attain the “American Dream” because he remains torn between maintaining a distinctly Chinese identity, and shedding that same identity to assimilate into mainstream American culture.
The origins of the term “American Dream” are found in James Truslow Adams’ novel The Epic of America where he states that the “American Dream” is:
“That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…A dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." (34).
This description, the one to which I will be referencing every time I use the term “American Dream,” is wholly optimistic, and very similar to the average person’s answer when asked to define the term. But a closer look at the phrasing of the definition is vital to its clarity, and demands a very honest look at the America in question. Instead of honing in, as most people do, on the sanguine pieces such as “richer and fuller” and “fullest stature of which they are capable,” I implore you to observe the easily overlooked but overtly critical word “should.” Saying life should be better and richer holds a very different and more ominous meaning than saying, for example, “a land in which life is better and richer” or “will be better and richer.” Though the “American Dream” is exactly as it presents itself- a dream- the fact that the original definition contains the irresolute term “should” suggests that “The American Dream,” from its inception, was never expected to be wholly obtainable by all people. Ng’s character Leon Leong is one of these people; the sort who dream the “Dream” and “should” attain it, but always find it just out of reach.
In her essay addressing the stereotyping of Chinese Americans, Sau-Ling Wong notes that “the ‘Chinaman’ no longer fully owns his experiences. He is now marked as an ethnic subject: singled out, blemished, considered deviant from a ‘merely human’ or ‘universal’ norm” (2). As Wong suggests, it oftentimes seems as if American society contains two stereotypical versions of successful Chinese Americans that it trots out over and over again, and that Chinese Americans that do not mold themselves into one of these camps will not be successful. The first kind is the Chinese immigrant who comes to America and proceeds to proudly make a name for himself and achieve his “American Dream” solely based on his “Chineseness.” Examples of this type of Chinese American include Jackie Chan, renowned martial arts master and actor; Raymond Qwok Chow, the San Francisco Chinatown mob boss (and living example of the Chinese warlord stereotype rampant in cinema); and Ming Tsai, the Chinese restaurateur (Lau, 2). On the opposite end of the spectrum from these Chinese Americans is the success story of the Chinaman who comes to America and effectively denounces his Chinese culture in order to purse a very American “American Dream.” Examples from this end of the gamut include Maya Lin, the architect responsible for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; Andrea Wong, the CEO and President of the Lifetime Networks; Richard On, the guitarist-songwriter for the rock band O.A.R.; and Nancy Kwan, the first Chinese-born country-western star (Lau, 4). Each of these notable Chinese Americans made a name for themselves outside their “Chineseness,” and has fully adapted into traditional mainstream American culture. There is rarely a successful case to evidence a middle ground between these two Chinese American Stereotypes.
Leon Leong belongs to neither end of this spectrum, and finds himself stuck in a sort of culture-based purgatory. Sue Tuohy, an expert in the field of Asian folklore studies, argues that culture is a product of unity and continuity, and stands to unite the Chinese people, regardless of their particular location (193-194). Presumably, when Leon and his family immigrated to America, they moved into San Francisco’s Chinatown for this very reason- for support and assistance from a social network into which they should have easily belonged. Leila, the eldest daughter and narrator of the novel, recalls a hotel in the middle of Chinatown called the San Fran, and refers to it as “our beginning place, our new China” (Ng, 4). This excerpt, along with the fact that Leon moved into a Chinatown instead of a regular American city, proves that the family did not intend to leave their Chinese culture in China, and was counting instead on belonging to a sort of American “mini-China” community of tight-knit culturally similar Chinese American immigrants with the same story. However, from the opening lines of the novel, we see that this is not the case: “We were a family of three girls. By Chinese standards, that wasn’t lucky. In Chinatown, everyone knew our story. [They] jerked their chins, looked at us, shook their heads. We heard things…A failed family” (Ng, 3).”
In the beginning, Leon made a strong effort to be as “American” as possible. When he first passes the immigrant interrogations at Angel Island along with his cousin, You Thin, Leon refuses to revert back to his Chinese name. “You Thin changed back to his real name as soon as he could, but Leon never did. Leon liked to repeat what he told You Thin: ‘In this country, paper is more precious than blood’” (Ng, 9). This excerpt from Bone shows that initially, Leon was so optimistic about his future successes in America that he was willing to renounce his Chinese blood via symbolically keeping his American name. One by one, however, Leon began to be rejected by the American society he so emulated: “I only had to open the first few [letters] to know the story: ‘We Don’t Want You.’: A rejection from the army: unfit. A job rejection: unskilled. An apartment: unavailable…He had job skills and experience: welding, construction, and electrical work, but no English” (Ng, 57-8). Slowly and systematically, Leon’s faith in the “American Dream” deteriorated:
He blamed all of America for making big promises and breaking every one. Where was the good job he’d heard about as a young man? Where was the successful business? He’d kept his end of the bargain: he’d worked hard. Two jobs, three. Day and night. Overtime. Assistant laundry presser. Prep cook. Busboy. Waiter. Porter. But where was his happiness? ‘America!’ he ranted, ‘this lie of a country!’ (Ng, 103).
Leon immigrates to America with every intention of pursuing the “American Dream.” Unfortunately, his status as “Chinese American” is valued to Americans as more important than his status as “American,” and his hopes of attaining the “Dream” diminish.
Leon moved his family from China into an American Chinatown to start a better life and assimilate into American culture; however, the language barrier that hindered his job hunt did not prove to be the sole inhibiting factor. It soon became obvious that it would be impossible for him and the family to escape in full their Chinese traditions and superstitions. Besides the aforementioned fact that a family of three girls is traditionally “unlucky” to the Chinese, the bulk of these superstitions all revolve around Ona’s (the middle daughter) suicide. To begin with, suicide is a despicable act to the Chinese (Vitiello, 246). Because it is traditionally considered such a horrendous act in Chinese culture, neither Leon nor Mah can convince themselves that Ona would do such a thing on her own accord: “Blood and bones. The oldtimers believed that the blood came from the mother and the bones from the father…neither [Leon nor Mah] could believe that Ona’s unhappiness was all her own” (Ng, 104). Leon’s reasoning for blaming himself lies entirely in the customs and superstitions of Chinese culture:
He had this crazy idea that our family’s bad luck started when he broke his promise to Grandpa Leong…Of more consequence was the promise to send Grandpa Leong’s bones back to China. Leon was was away when Grandpa Leong died. Leon worried about the restless bones, and for years, whenever something went wrong—losing a job, losing the bid for the takeout joint, losing the Ong and Leong Lundry—Leon blamed the bones. (Ng, 50)
According to several different Chinese traditions, unless the appropriate rites of passage have been performed after death (in this case, the return of Grandpa Leong’s bones to China) the spirit remains restless and the individual responsible for not providing proper funerary rites will be cursed (Haar, 186-7). Because Leon did not perform send his father’s bones back to China to be buried—the appropriate rites of passage ceremony—“he blamed himself. The misplaced grave, the forgotten bones. Leon gave those bones power, believed they were the bad luck that stirred Ona’s destiny” (Ng, 88). Ona’s suicide is considered by Leon and Mah to be the reason the family has been permanently unlucky in America, “everything went back to Ona” (Ng, 50).
Because the family’s greatest misfortunes—the struggles that prevent Leon from attaining his “American Dream” — are all rooted in Chinese tradition and superstition, it is clear that Leon is incapable of completely shedding his Chinese roots. At the same time, however, the Chinese traditions and heritage he holds so dear are what prevents him from successfully integrating himself into the American society that he has always dreamed of belonging to. His limbo between cultures—a refusal to completely give up his Chinese traditions and failure to properly integrate himself into American society because of this—form the catch-22 responsible for Leon’s failure to attain the “American Dream.”
Further evidence that Leon Leong’s failure to attain the great “American Dream” due to his perpetual position in cultural purgatory can be found by observing his daughters, Nina and Leila. “Differing from their immigrant parents, immigrant children and children of immigrants lack meaningful connections to their “old” world. They are thus unlikely to consider a foreign country as a place to return to or as a point of reference” (Zhou, 64). Nina, Leon’s youngest daughter, is the paradigm of this statement. After her parents rejected her over an abortion, Nina in turn rejected them and her entire Chinese identity, moving 3000 miles across the continent to New York. She methodically and effectively removes the “Chinese” from herself: “I hardly ever use chopsticks anymore. At home I eat my rice on a plate, with a fork. I only use chopsticks to hold my hair up” (Ng, 27). She even avoids Chinatowns like the one she left in San Francisco- “When [Leila] suggested Chinatown, Nina said it was too depressing. ‘The food’s good,’ she said, but the life’s hard down there…In American restaurants, the atmosphere helps me forget” (Ng, 26). When Leila, who still lives in Chinatown with Mah and Leon, is torn by the decision to completely reject her Chinese identity, Nina tells her, “Look, you’ve always been on standby for [Mah and Leon]…doing things their way…[but] think about it…they don’t want to come into our worlds. We keep on having to live in their world. I know about should. I know about have to…but I’ve learned this: I can’t” (Ng, 33).
Leila suffers of a struggle set somewhere between that of Leon and Nina. Like Leon, Leila refuses to leave Chinatown, “I was locked into living Mah’s and Leon’s lives for them” (Ng, 119). Chinese parents, as a rule, strongly promote familial allegiance, and historically, Chinese parenting has taken on a more authoritarian role than the more laissez-faire-style approach of their European and American counterparts (Gorman, 73-75). Because of this, Leila feels obligated to stay in San Francisco’s Chinatown with her parents and follow the life they have planned for her. Even when she decides she wants to escape Chinatown to pursue her own “American Dream,” Leila is almost held back by the Chinese traditions of familial commitment and comfort, “for a moment, I was tempted to fall back into the easiness of being Mah’s daughter, of letting her be my whole life” (Ng, 193). Like Leon, Leila finds it extremely difficult to abandon completely her former Chinese way of life in order to adopt wholly an American one. Unlike Leon, however, Leila realizes that in order to chase down her “American Dream,” she must leave her former Chinese traditions and culture behind: “I was reassured…I wasn’t worried when I turned that corner, leaving the old blue sign, Salmon Alley, Mah and Leon—everything—backdaire” (Ng, 194).
Contrasting Nina, Leila, and Leon side by side immediately facilitates the conclusion that capturing the elusive “American Dream” is impossible while remaining in cultural limbo. On one end there is Leon, who works hard his entire life in an attempt to create a better future for himself, his wife, and his children. Unfortunately, his unwillingness to forgo his “Chineseness” in order to assimilate into American culture results in a failure to attain the “Dream.” On the opposing side sits Nina, who completely rejects her Chinese heritage and culture, and moves to New York City to begin a whole new life, family, and career. Unlike Leon, she frees herself from the traditions of her past and the “Chinese” portion of her Chinese American identity in order to completely and successfully obtains the “American Dream” that Leon could never quite grasp. The fact that Leila experiences a middle ground, both desiring to maintain her “Chineseness” like Leon and leave it all behind to start a new life like Nina, but ultimately sides with Nina in shedding her Chinese identity to achieve the “American Dream,” confirms that it is Leon’s attachment to his Chinese heritage which prevents him from attaining his “Dream.”
The conception that the “American Dream” is attainable by all people regardless of culture, gender, or background is clearly erroneous and misinformed. As the character of Leon Leong in Fae Myenne Ng’s novel Bone proves though his grapples with his identity, “The American Dream” is impossible to obtain as a Chinese American immigrant trying to maintain a balance between the old culture and the new. Leon’s life story stands to prove that the Chinese culture is too deep-seeded in Chinese immigrants to be shunned, which provides justification for the statement that the “Chinese American Dream” is not necessarily the same as another immigrant’s “Dream” or an American’s “American Dream.” Unlike the others, Leon’s “Chinese American Dream” is unattainable without renouncing the culture of one’s Chinese past in order to assume the culture requisite of an American future.
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